Underground Book Review: The Pollinator’s Corridor by Aaron Birk
Inspired by Nature
The ‘movement’ that Aaron refers to isn’t just environmentalism, although it could easily be lumped into that broad category. Aaron is passionate about small-scale urban farming and educational projects that teach city kids about the environment. “The environment isn’t just in National Geographic magazines, or these idyllic tribes living in the woods,” he explains. “It’s right here in the city, in the cracks between our feet.”
The Pollinator’s Corridor addresses the subject of inner-city pollination. “Pollen is the transmitter of genetic memory. Not only is it allowing complexity and biodiversity in the plant kingdom, it’s also creating food. If plants don’t get pollinated they don’t produce seed. Most flowering plants require this service, this dance.”
Aaron has been educating for eleven years, and The Pollinator’s Corridor reflects this. “The book itself is designed to be unpacked by educators. In one sense it could be used as a curriculum-building tool. You could take one page and build a lesson around it,” Aaron says. In Philadelphia an environmental initiative called Project Learn is using The Pollinator’s Corridor as a textbook for its hands-on after school programs.
But just because it can be used as a textbook doesn’t mean that The Pollinator’s Corridor is an academic text. “When people ask me what my audience is I usually say, ‘It’s me.’ I make a book that I want to read and the result is that the majority of my audience is usually either elementary school kids or doctorate scientists. Little children and super-scientists. And in between that are beekeepers. I think they live in both worlds also.”
Aaron’s graphic novel is timely. Today, an epidemic called Colony Collapse Disorder is deteriorating the bee population in the United States. This is a huge problem for the agriculture industry and, and there is still plenty of controversy about the cause of the problem.
Aaron doesn’t think there’s much to debate about. “It’s caused by systemic pesticides,” he says with confidence. “Major corporations are using a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. It’s a neurotoxin and it kills anything with six legs.”
“It’s mostly affecting big agriculture,” he adds. “Beekeepers that have enough forest, wilderness or organic farms around them are OK. Urban beekeepers have been doing OK. That’s the irony: bees are thriving in the cities.”
Beekeeping and agriculture aside, Aaron has more personal reasons for writing The Pollinator’s Corridor. “I grew up in Bethesda, outside of Washington, DC. When I was born it was a small town and I watched it explode. I watched a lot of forests get cut down and I watched a lot of places get paved over.”
Finally, he admits the truth. “I’m a 34 year old man and I like to draw butterflies and flowers. I have to justify that so I try to put this grisly city around, and burnt out cars and bullet-ridden garage doors.”
From Scraps of Paper to Paperback
From the very beginning, Aaron had a vision. “I remember walking into a used bookstore with 25 cent books and one dollar books and I had this feeling in my gut that I was looking for a book. I wanted a book that would take me into another state of consciousness. But I never found the book so I had to create the book that I wanted.”
In order to make his dream a reality, Aaron had to put work not only into creating his own personal masterpiece, but also into producing it. Instead of shopping around for a publisher, Aaron turned to fundraising and managed to raise enough money to print fifteen hundred books. Here’s how:
Crowd sourcing: Aaron fundraised through a website called Kickstarter, which uses online crowd sourcing to help artists reach their goals.
Grants: “There’s a website called The Foundation Center and they are the hub. They have about 22 million grants in the database and you can subscribe to them and get a list of all the upcoming deadlines.”
Fiscal sponsorship: Aaron was sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Advertisements: The back two pages of The Pollinator’s Corridor are ads for related organizations, which Aaron was happy to support.
Loans: Despite the fact that Aaron raised close to 20 thousand dollars, he still went into debt to create The Pollinator’s Corridor. “At this point it’s fine because they exist now,” he says. “Let me go bankrupt.”
Entering the World of Self-Publishing
With self-publishing, Aaron was able to have full control of the content in his graphic novel. “It used to be referred to as ‘vanity publishing’ in a kind of derogatory way. Now they call it ‘self-publishing,’ which has a little bit more dignity. But if you can get the money together to do it, you can control everything. There’s no quotes on the back of my book from the San Francisco Chronicle. There’s no blurb. It’s supposed to be an artifact. It’s supposed to be an object of beauty.”
In these days of cyber-everything, Aaron has high hopes for the world of self-publishing. “You go into an old growth forest, imagine the trees are thousands of years old. You’ve got Random House, Knopf, Simon & Schuster… now, when someone clear-cuts that, they’re down. What’s the first thing that will happen in a forest? Sprouts. You get water sprouts from the roots and the seeds and light becomes available.” The old-growth trees are still standing, but Aaron sees room for sprouts in the future.
It’s a struggle, but Aaron is enjoying the process. “The experience of self-publishing is awesome and I’d recommend it to anyone. I don’t need to make a fortune. I would love to go on tour and connect and network with other people. To collaborate and create new visions, new hybrids, new ideas, new approaches.”
The next installments will still have an environmental edge, but they will be much racier than the first. Aaron was cryptic in his description of the upcoming series. “The cover of the next book is a picture of Sam, the hero, being stuffed into the trunk of a car. There’s a lot more action, more plot. Sex, alcohol, gangs,” he tells me. I’d say that’s something to look forward to!